A massive charge of electricity accidentally entered a motor under maintenance on board the M/V Walla Walla on Sunday while the vessel was docked at the Washington State Ferries (WSF) maintenance facility on Bainbridge Island, known as Eagle Harbor.
No one was injured in the accident, yet a source with detailed knowledge of the event told the KING 5 Investigators that people could have easily died.
“In all my years in the maritime industry I’ve never seen anything like this. It sent chills up my spine because of the potential to kill somebody. I can’t put enough emphasis on how close they came to killing someone,” said the source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
On Friday the WA State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) announced four separate entities are investigating to get to the bottom of what happened.
"Due to the severity of the damage, the investigation has been elevated to a third party contractor, Cadick Corporation. They will be assisted by WSDOT ferries division’s senior port engineers, safety systems managers, and electrical engineers. WSDOT has also reached out to the Department of Labor and Industries and the U.S. Coast Guard for assistance to ensure that all employee safety requirements were met. Detailed results of the investigation are expected within two to three weeks," said Marta Coursey, Washington State Ferries Director of Communications.
The accident caused huge chunks of steel and copper to melt, as well as holes to be blasted through what is known as the commutator portion of the motor. A commutator provides the power to turn the shaft and propellers that ultimately move the ferry.
“It looks like it exploded,” said the source. “It has chunks blown out that look like someone took an ice cream scoop and scooped it out.”
Ferries officials issued a press release on Friday saying initial findings show no actual explosion occured.
"Immediately following the incident, the Washington State Department of Transportation Ferries Division started an internal investigation per standard protocol. Preliminary findings indicate that there was no explosion," said Coursey.
“This is a serious incident and we’re going to do a very thorough and detailed investigation into what happened,” said David Moseley, WSDOT assistant secretary, ferries division. “We hope to return the vessel to service as soon as possible.”
WSF is working with General Electric to ascertain if a spare drive motor owned by the ferry system which is currently stored in a warehouse. If testing shows that part can be used, sources tell KING the Walla Walla would most likely be out of service for four to six additional months. If a new commutator has to be built by General Electric, the Walla Walla could be out of service for up to two years.
The vessel is part of the Jumbo Class of boats and is one of the largest in the fleet. It has been out of service for several months while undergoing maintenance, including a new paint job, at Vigor Industrial Shipyard in Everett. After the stint at Todd, the boat was towed to Eagle Harbor for additional procedures before going back into service. One of the jobs was to clean out the commutators due to excess paint, or “overspray,” which accidentally entered into the machinery.
That’s when things went dangerously wrong. According to two sources most likely human error is to blame. KING 5 has learned this type of unexpected release of hazardous electricity would not happen if employees performing the maintenance would have employed the legally mandated safety procedures to prevent an electrical explosion or electrocution.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has termed the procedure “Lockout/Tagout." When work is being performed in an electrical environment such as that, Lockout/Tagout procedures ensure the machinery is turned off and disconnected from its energy source. A padlock is used to make sure the power cannot be turned back on. Experts say the process takes about five minutes.
Ferry managers would not confirm nor deny that proper safety protocols were not in place prior to the event.
"On Sunday, November 4, the propulsion drive motor on the Walla Walla failed. This failure left the vessel inoperable until the propulsion drive motor or its components can either be repaired or replaced. We are conducting a full investigation into the incident and probable causes per standard WSF protocol. We are also working with the manufacturer to trouble-shoot the problem," said Coursey.
The motor that was left in an unsecured state is located in what is called Motor Room #1 of the Walla Walla. Sources told us that on Sunday an employee on the other end of the boat turned the power on inside Motor Room #2. That would be okay if proper safety steps had been taken. Instead, massive amounts of electricity traveled across the boat from Motor Room #2 to Motor Room #1. That caused the commutator to overheat, portions of it to melt, and pieces of it to pop out. Fortunately no one was working inside the unsecured Motor Room #1 drive motor.
According to OSHA the event could have had catastrophic results. “Employees can be seriously or fatally injured if machinery they service or maintain unexpectedly energizes, starts up, or releases stored energy. OSHA’s standard on the Control of Hazardous Energy (Lockout/Tagout)…spells out the steps employers must take to prevent accidents associated with hazardous energy,” wrote OSHA Assistant Secretary John Henshaw, in a memo outlining the Lockout/Tagout requirements.
The Walla Walla is a relief boat in the system. It can carry 2,000 passengers and 188 vehicles. It typically sails on the Seattle/Bremerton run or the Edmonds/Kingston run.
Ferry managers said they are working to get the boat back to work and that service will hopefully not be interrupted..
"Our current estimates are that the vessel will be out of service for the next few months while crews work to repair the issue. There will be vessel moves throughout the system as we work to keep service levels maintained and we are working to return the Walla Walla to service as soon as possible," said Coursey.